These are terrible times, Dr. Hoke Smith reminded the TowsonState University class of 1992. Between the impending AIDS epidemic, the malignant health of the earth, the congressional check-bounding charade, the race riots in Los Angeles, and, of course, the recession, the future looks bleak.
His remedy for these ills was, simply, for graduates to "stay in school."
When he smiled after this comment, and then paused as if waiting for the expected laughter, I knew this remark was made in half-jest, intended to lighten the mood with its touch of irony. After all, here was the president of Maryland's second largest public university, advising graduates to turn their backs on the world; to retreat back into the security of college life. He expected laughs. But his humor was lost on his targeted audience of nearly 2,000 in the Towson Center.
Like me, these graduates had come into this ceremony with their sights to the sky, fully aware of the struggles before them, yet still optimistic. But now the familiar haze had reappeared. It clouded our dreams. How could it not? If the president of our university could only remind us of the despair that fills the news each day, how could we feel any hope, any fire to set the old world ablaze? How could we believe that we hold the torches of change in our hands?
For nearly two weeks after graduation I was convinced that Dr. Smith was right. Graduates were all better off behind the moat-lined walls of college. But than I remembered the revelation uttered by a student a few weeks earlier during a pivotal moment in the school's race relations.
On a clear, hazeless Friday a few days after the four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted during the Rodney King trial, and after the ensuing race riots that rocked that city, some students at Towson organized a protest. (This was the first racially-inspired protest held at the school in its 126-year history.)
In the early stages of the demonstration the protesters, more than a hundred black students and a few white students and professors, stood in front of the humanities building decrying the verdict and all hate-isms, including racism. Soon their agenda changed, however, and the activists began condemning the brutal actions of all police, not just those in Los Angeles. Within moments, the protesters extended their grievances to all authority -- white authority.
By now, twice as many students -- practically all white -- stood opposite the protesters, watching, listening, biting their lips. They were stone quiet.
Then a black student emerged from this passive side and insisted that not only was justice served in the King trial but that white authority was not the root of all evil.
"Tell the pseudo-brother to sit down," someone yelled from the other side.
"Yeah, sit your generic ass down!" added another protester.
That was when it all began. Suddenly a white student stood up on a bench and argued that not all police were racists. He dodged insults as he insisted that not all white people were evil.
The verbal gunfire went back and forth until a strange thing happened. At a school where black students have always clustered together in the back of the lunchroom; where black and white fraternities and sororities rarely, if ever, socialize together; the black and white sides merged. And they talked.
They talked not about classes or professors but about each other -- about what it felt like to be followed by security officers from the time you entered a mall until you left. They swapped stories about growing up in inner city, suburban and private schools.
Yes, many of the students, black and white, still argued more out of genuine ignorance than out of a need to understand. But as the brave white student who stood on the bench put it, it didn't matter that a lot of the "pointless" arguing was still taking place. What was important was, "Everyone's talking."
Dr. Smith should have been there on that sparkling afternoon, that unprecedented day, when students stripped off their blinders and finally stood face-to-face, confronting the fears and anger behind each black and white face. The president -- all of us -- would have learned a lot from those students -- that before we can come up with solutions to our cultural problems, or yield to them, we need first to talk. We need to listen. We need to understand.
Of course, the president was right to reflect during his speech on such harsh realities as the opaque job market, the health care crisis, the apathy toward government and racial civil war. We haven't been shaken to the core by such upheaval since the late '60s; a time when the prescribed way to deal with the chaos was to Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out.
But as natural as the tendency might be to become islands unto ourselves during such periods of unrest, we should remember that we are fortunate to be alive right now. "May you live in interesting times," goes the Chinese adage.
Thankfully, that is exactly what we have -- times that are so interesting, so exciting because we can become the stewards of vast change within our own country. We can have a say in our future.
Congratulations, class of 1992. We are entering the world at a most exciting time.
Now is the time to scale the walls of education, not to cower behind them. Now is the time to embrace the chaos with a new blueprint for the '90s: no longer to Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out but to Speak Up, Hear Out, Join In.
Andrew Todd Reiner received a master's degree in professional writing this spring from Towson State University.